Traditional Chinese parenting:
What research says about Chinese kids and why they succeed
© 2011 - 2012 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Why people are interested in traditional Chinese parenting
“Chinese Americans are overrepresented in many of the nation's
elite universities" say Yong Zhao and Wei Qiu. The kids get higher SAT
math scores, and are disproportionately represented among U.S. National
Merit Scholars (Zhao and Qiu 2009).
A recent study of American tenth graders found that
Asian-Americans outperformed all other ethnic groups in math and science
(Else-Quest et al 2013).
Why is this the case? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because Chinese people enjoy an innate advantage in IQ.
When James Flynn analyzed past studies of achievement and IQ, he
found that Chinese attainments could be better explained by
environmental factors (Flynn 1991).
So what’s the secret?
Yale law professor Amy Chua says it’s about parenting.
Chinese mothers raise more accomplished, academically successful
kids because they are more demanding and strict than Western mothers
Is Chua correct?
There is some evidence in her favor. We know, for example, that
parents who set high standards tend to have kids who are more successful
at school. It’s also clear that Chinese parents tend to spend more time
pushing their kids to study, practice, and achieve.
But the devil is in the details, and many critics want to know about the specific parenting practices Chua describes in a
controversial piece for the Wall Street Journal,
and in her autobiographical book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
As I note below, these practices -- which feature the threat of punishment and lots of psychological control -- sound like
an approach to child-rearing that is usually not associated with the best academic and emotional child outcomes.
The best child outcomes are usually linked with a different style--
It's true for many Westerners, and it's also true for many Chinese.
When Chinese kids are raised by authoritative parents, they do as well
or better than Chinese kids from authoritarian homes.
So it’s doubtful that Chua’s tactics are as effective as she thinks, and recent research bears this out. As I note in this blog post, a new study testing Chua's ideas links “tiger parenting" with lower academic achievement and poorer emotional adjustment (Kim et al 2013).
What, then, can explain Chinese achievement? Decades of research
suggests that Chinese kids have two big advantages, advantages that have
little to do with authoritarianism:
• Parents emphasize effort, not innate ability
• Children's peers support each other when they work hard at school
Effort--and the belief that effort pays off--is a key ingredient
to Chinese success. Chua herself makes this point in the Wall Street
Journal. She doesn’t let her kids believe they can’t succeed.
So here is an overview of Chua’s controversial claims, and a look at the research on Chinese parenting.
Self-portrait of a Chinese mom
Amy Chua is the daughter of Chinese immigrants to the United
States. Her parents, she says, were “extremely strict but extremely
loving." She tried to raise her kids the same way.
What does this mean? Chua provides some specific examples.
For instance, Chua says she never allowed her kids to have a
playdate, watch TV, participate in a school play, or choose their own
extra-curricular activities. The kids are also not allowed to “get any
grade less than an A" or “not be the No. 1 student in every subject
except gym and drama."
When her 7-year-old daughter failed to master a new piece on the
piano, Chua drove her relentlessly. “I threatened her with no lunch, no
dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents," Chua writes, “no birthday
parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it
wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy
because she was secretly afraid she couldn't do it. I told her to stop
being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic."
Chua made her daughter work into the night, denying her even a
break to go to the bathroom. “The house became a war zone, and I lost my
voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and
even I began to have doubts."
Then--at last--the girl made a breakthrough. She mastered the
piece, and wanted to play it again and again. And the emotional strife
had lifted. That night, the girl crawled into her mother’s bed, and they
“snuggled and hugged, cracking each other up. “
To many people, this story is disturbing. Chua’s approach seems harsh and unhelpful.
But Chua got the results. And, Chua notes, the point is this:
Unlike many Western parents who would have backed down, convinced
that the child just wasn’t ready or able to master the new piano piece,
Chua believed that her child could do it. But she wasn’t going to learn
the piece without intense effort, and that effort wasn’t going to
happen unless the child was pushed.
What helps kids? To be allowed to choose for themselves, or to be
pushed into achievements that will pay off later in life? A more
indulgent approach might seem more caring. But, as Chua argues, her
parenting style shows a concern for the long-term welfare of her kids.
“The Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children
is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're
capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner
confidence that no one can ever take away."
That doesn’t mean that Chinese parenting is better. As Chua recounts in her book, one of her daughters rebelled, and Chua had to reassess her views.
She tells Jeff Yang,
"...I'm aware now of the limitations of that model -- that it doesn't
incorporate enough choice, that it doesn't account for kids' individual
But Chua sticks by her basic premise. If you want to know why
Chinese kids succeed, it’s because of the sorts of parenting practices
What does the research say?
Chua’s claims have caused a stir. Are the parenting tactics she
describes truly effective? And if these tactics work, do they work at a
cost to the kids? Here’s what the research says.
1. Traditional Chinese parenting has been labeled as “authoritarian" by some researchers.
is a style of child-rearing that emphasizes high standards and a
tendency to control kids through shaming, the withdrawal of love, or
other punishments. This is distinguished from authoritative parenting,
which also emphasizes high standards, but is accompanied by high levels
of parental warmth and a commitment to reason with children.
2. When compared with authoritative parenting,
authoritarian parenting is linked with lower levels of self-control, more emotional problems, and lower academic performance.
These links have been documented for Western kids raised in North
America. They have also been documented for Chinese kids living in
Beijing and Taiwan. But there are some exceptions. Studies Hong Kong
Chinese (Leung et al 1998) and of Chinese immigrants to North America
(Chao 2001) have linked authoritarian parenting with higher school
3. Researchers like Ruth Chao argue that the authoritarian
label doesn’t quite map onto the strict, controlling parenting style of
many traditional Chinese. “Authoritarian" implies that parents are
rather cold and distant. But strict Chinese parents enjoy a sense of
closeness with their kids. And the kids may interpret their parents’
coercive tactics as evidence that they are loved. This, says Chao, is
why some studies have failed to show a link between poor outcomes and
authoritarian parenting among Chinese immigrants. Unlike children in
Western authoritarian families--children who feel alienated by their
parents--the Chinese-American kids feel connected (Chao 1994; Chao
4. Traditional Chinese parenting has one clear advantage over
contemporary Western parenting: Chinese parents--like many other Asian
parents--are more likely to emphasize effort over innate talent. Experiments show that
people learn more when they believe that effort, not innate intelligence, is the key to achievement.
And other research suggests that Westerners are more likely to assume
that a child fails because he lacks innate ability (Stevenson and Lee
5. Chinese-American kids tend to have peer groups that support achievement. Studies
of adolescents in the United States suggest that some kids pay a “nerd
penalty" for studying hard. When these kids perform well at school, they
get rejected by their peers. Chinese-Americans are less likely to face
this choice between scholastic success and social success. Lawrence
Steinberg and his colleagues (1992) wonder if “pro-achievement" peer
pressure protects Chinese kids from some of the negative effects of
And what about creativity? Independent thinking skills?
I haven’t found any studies addressing the subject. But some
educators in China have expressed concern that traditional Chinese
parenting doesn’t foster creativity or divergent thinking (Tobin et al
1991; Zhao 2007). And it seems reasonable to assume that kids won’t
develop skills they don’t practice.
As Yong Zhao and Wei Qiu note, it’s a myth that Chinese (and
other Asian-American) students are good at everything. Like everyone
else, they have their strengths and weaknesses. And these are shaped by
So there is no magic here. Just the payoffs for hard work.
Is the controversy justified? It's certainly understandable.
People want to know if authoritarian parenting can sometimes be a
good thing. I'm inclined to say not. But in any case, it's clear that
there are good things about traditional Chinese parenting--and Chinese
culture--that don't have anything to do with authoritarianism. And those
are lessons that can benefit us all.
References: Traditional Chinese parenting
If you want to know about Ruth Chao's research, check out this list of papers about
It includes a number of studies and book chapters that you can download
and read. In addition, these are the references cited in the article
Chao R. 2001. Extending research on the consequences of parenting
style for Chinese Americans and European Americans. Child Development
Chao R. 1994. "Beyond parental control; authoritarian parenting
style: Understanding Chinese parenting through the cultural notion of
training." Child Development 45: 1111-1119.
Else-Quest NM, Mineo C, and Higgins A. 2013. Math and science
attitudes and achievement at the intersection of gender and ethnicity.
Psychology of Women Quarterly. In press.
Flynn J R. 1991. Asian Americans: Achievement Beyond IQ. Lawrence Erlbaum.
Kim SY, Wang Y, Orozco-Lapray D, Shen Y, and Murtuza M. 2013. Does "Tiger Parenting" Exist? Parenting Profiles of Chinese Americans and Adolescent Developmental Outcomes. Asian Am J Psychol. 2013 Mar 1;4(1):7-18.
Leung PWL and Kwon KSF. 1998. Parenting Styles, Motivational
Orientations, and Self-Perceived Academic Competence: A Mediational
Model. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly.44(1): 1-19.
Steinberg L, Lamborn SD, Dornbusch SM, and Darling N. 1992.
Impact of parenting practices on adolescent achievement: authoritative
parenting, school involvement, and encouragement to succeed. Child Dev.
Stevenson HW and Lee SY. 1990. Contexts of achievement: a study
of American, Chinese, and Japanese children. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev.
Zhao Y. 2007. China and the whole child. Educational Leadership 64(8): 70-73.
Zhao Y and Qiu W. 2009. How Good Are the Asians? Refuting Four
Myths About Asian-American Academic Achievement. Phi Delta Kappan 90(5):
Content last modified 3/13
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